‘I wanted to take my life’: Brittney Griner talks about detention in Russian prison

Brittney Griner, the US basketball star who was imprisoned in Russia for 10 months in 2022, has given her first interviews since her release as part of a prisoner exchange, revealing that she had contemplated suicide while in jail.

Speaking to the New York Times, Griner described her arrest, the shocking and unsanitary conditions that she endured during her detention, and her difficult readjustment to ordinary life after she was exchanged for the convicted weapons smuggler Viktor Bout in December 2022. “I’ve never been so dirty in my life,” she said.

She added that Joe Biden had told her wife, Cherelle, not to pressure him in public during negotiations because it “would play into Russia’s hands”. The interview came just days before the release of Griner’s prison memoir, Coming Home.

Griner was arrested in February 2022 at a Moscow airport after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. She later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

“I wanted to take my life more than once in the first weeks,” Griner told ABC in a separate interview. “I felt like leaving here so badly.” She decided against doing so in part because she was afraid the Russian authorities would not release her body to her family.

She said she had packed the cannabis oil in error due to a “mental lapse”, similar to misplacing car keys but on “a more grand scale”.

Brittney Griner back in action in the WNBA Series for Phoenix Mercury, June 2023. Photograph: LM Otero/AP

She described the psychological and physical torment of her imprisonment as a gay American woman in a Russian prison where she was held on drug charges.

“My life became a blur of sweeping and dusting, cleaning and praying, hoping I could somehow get home,” she writes in the memoir of her time in pre-trial detention. “I hurt because I knew I’d handed the world a weapon.”

Griner’s arrest came shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, elevating her status as a political pawn while Russia sought to negotiate the release of several high-profile citizens imprisoned in the US.

Russia has since arrested the US journalist Evan Gershkovich on espionage charges that he and his newspaper have described as spurious, and Vladimir Putin has implied that he wants to secure the release of a Russian security services hitman imprisoned in Germany. Russia is also holding the former US marine Paul Whelan and several Russian-US dual citizens, including the journalist Alsu Kurmasheva.

In the New York Times interview, Griner described the public relations push, led by advocates in the Black community, that eventually pressed the Biden administration into working with them directly. Biden ultimately replied to a direct letter from Griner, writing: “Getting you home is top of mind for all of us.”

Griner described her anguish in prison for her family, her concerns that her case could play into caustic stereotypes of Black people as drug abusers, and of her status as a gay woman in a prison in Russia, where “gay propaganda” has been outlawed. She was repeatedly subjected to lewd comments and, she said, actions by Russian prison guards who ogled her and photographed her while naked.

She said she had packed her own bags the day that she had flown into Russia with cannabis oil, which had been prescribed by a doctor in the US. She recalled that she had left it in her bag only when she arrived at a customs check in Russia.

“As soon as she felt the cannabis-oil cartridge stowed in a zippered inner pocket in her backpack, her stomach sank,” the piece read, quoting her as saying: “I was like: ‘Oh, [expletive]. Oh, this is about to be bad.’”

In the memoir, Griner describes befriending a fellow athlete and inmate who helped interpret prison guards and television shows for her as she waited for her trial to begin.

When she was ultimately released, Bout, the weapons trafficker, shook her hand and congratulated her as they walked across the tarmac past each other.

Upon returning home, she found that she felt disoriented and that her health had deteriorated from her time in prison and the habit of smoking cigarettes that she had picked up in the Russian prison. She considered quitting basketball at one point.

She was also the target of anger. “We’re getting all this hate about how unpatriotic I am,” she said. “That I’m un-American and shouldn’t be alive right now.”

She described coming to terms with her life after her time in a Russian prison.

“There’s no room for tears as women,” she told the interviewer. “If we have a moment, it’s like, Oh, she’s weak, being bitchy or irrational. We don’t get to process; we have to be on 24/7.”

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